The pots simmered on the stove, and NPR babbled through their steam, cadenced voices delivering the day’s news in careful clips. James felt good, better than he had for months, better than he’d felt since Dennis had gone to his ashram or whatever. He peeled carrots, swept the spirals of skin into the trash bin, and put the final touches on the salad for the dinner party.
He wondered if Anthony and Greg would be able to see it, if he looked like he felt: the cat that ate the canary. He could feel a grin licking at his lips. Surely they’d be able to tell. He’d spent months moping after Dennis had left, crying at his friends’ apartments, drinking cups of tea until he was afraid he’d soaked up all their sympathy. He brought the salad to the table, uncorked a bottle of wine to let it breathe. He wondered if he should tell them.
Through appetizers and dinner, they talked politics and gossip about friends not present, and it wasn’t until dessert that Anthony finally gave James the opening he’d been waiting for. “Well, I’ve got to say, James, you’re looking good.”
James smiled as he passed them slices of torte. “Thanks, honey. I am good.”
“So? What’s your secret?”
“Don’t laugh. And don’t think I’m crazy.” He paused, surveying the two of them for unacceptable facial expressions, but both Anthony and Greg were carefully composed studies in sympathy, interest, curiosity. “I’ve met someone.”
A gasp from Greg. “Who?”
James bit his lower lip. Up against the moment, he felt sudden doubt—they would think he had lost it—and he wavered on the brink of his revelation. But no, they were his friends and they’d be accepting. He took a nervous sip of wine and said, “An incubus. He lives in my guest bathroom.”
“A what?” asked Anthony.
“An incubus. A ghost, of sorts, but very real, I assure you.”
“Of course,” Greg said, reaching for his wine glass. “Who doesn’t have some ghosts around?”
James tried to brush off Greg’s light tone as he plunged ahead, wanting to convince them. “I can’t see him—not very well, anyway—since it’s dark, but there’s something gorgeous about him. And he’s an incredible lover.”
Anthony smiled. “Yeah? He’s handsome?”
“It’s not like that. He’s stunning, but not in that sense.”
“Are you serious, James?” Anthony set his fork by his dessert plate.
A joke. They thought it was a joke. “Of course I am. I hoped you’d be happy for me. Finally. After Dennis.”
“Oh, James, it must be hard, with Dennis gone. It gets lonely and it’s not easy to meet someone new,” said Greg.
“I have met someone.” More abruptly than he meant to, James pushed back from the table and stood up. Seizing the wine bottle, he refilled everyone’s glass, fighting to keep his hand from shaking. “Excuse me,” he said, and turned to take the empty bottle to the kitchen.
He stared at the counter for a long moment, scolding himself. He shouldn’t have said anything. Of course they didn’t believe him. A deep breath, another. It didn’t matter. He reached into the cabinet, took out another bottle of merlot, plunged the corkscrew in, waited for the satisfying pop. As he walked back to the dining room, he heard their voices, pitched low.
“—incubus? I’m not even sure what that is,” said Anthony.
“It’s some sort of spirit that haunts you at night. Well, not really haunt you so much as has sex with you. Remember that trashy vampire novel Krista gave me? It had an incubus in it—no, wait, it had the female version, a succubus. Still, you get the picture,” said Greg.
“He’s lost it this time,” Anthony said.
“I think he’s just lonely,” replied Greg.
James coughed as he drew closer. He didn’t want to hear what they had to say about Dennis. As he sat down again, the conversational gears shifted to a movie they wanted to see, to how noisy movie theaters were these days, to the new restaurant that had opened in the square. James poured wine, laughed, even as he couldn’t wait for the dinner to end, to be alone again.
Greg and Anthony exchanged a look, one of those meaningful glances that long-term couples have, and they stood, the two of them in fluid concert with each other, offering to help clean up. But James waved them off, found their coats, and hugged them at the door. Had he and Dennis once exchanged such glances? Had Dennis ever felt so solid when he hugged him? James shut the door and turned the bolt. He couldn’t remember.
What he could remember was this: he and Dennis had been together for over ten years—the sort of happy, stable couple that others took for granted as eternal. But in the last year and a half, their relationship had shifted drastically. First came the bike accident that shattered Dennis’ leg, which led to acupuncture and yoga for rehabilitation and a burgeoning interest in the therapeutic benefits of meditation. Then Dennis had started to take Buddhism more seriously, going on monastic retreats, practicing new austerities. Initially, James had followed along with him, renouncing meat and alcohol and taking part in weekends of unbroken silence, but for him it was an exercise in love for Dennis, while for Dennis it was something else, transcendence or enlightenment, an experience that James felt walled-off from. And, gradually, Dennis did transcend and ascend—literally—right up a mountain in western Massachusetts to a Buddhist monastery, where he took a vow of celibacy and entered into a year-long novitiate. Before he’d left, they’d fought tearfully over what this meant for them as a couple, with James declaring them lifelong spiritual partners and secretly hoping that Dennis would abandon his monastic ambitions. For the six months that Dennis had been on his mountain-top retreat, James sent checks to the monastery—donations for the care and feeding of the monks—went back to eating meat and drinking wine, and was terribly lonely.
In the quiet of the apartment, James loaded the dishwasher, scrubbed the kitchen counter, and tried to push away the looks his friends had given him when he mentioned the incubus. He had been hoping they’d be more intrigued and accepting, but they clearly were uncomfortable. He poured himself more wine, then shut the lights off in the kitchen. A lamp still glowed in the living room, and he padded on bare feet towards it. Before Dennis went to the monastery, the shelves here had been lined with books—The Miracle of Meditation, Achieving Enlightenment—the walls hung with pictures of the Dalai Lama and prayer flags. Little statues of the Buddha had sat on every surface. The accumulation of these objects had occurred gradually. To James it felt like being a victim of the world’s slowest moving flood, as if a faucet had dripped, almost imperceptibly, yet the drips had filled room after room until James found he had to swim or drown. At some point in Dennis’ absence, James had begun to remove these items, but nothing dramatic, no sudden cathartic cleansing. Every day, he’d take a Buddha statue from a shelf and put it in a drawer or box up a few books and carry them down to the basement. He didn’t have anything to fill the empty spaces, though, and sometimes he wondered if it wouldn’t just be better to leave it alone, to give the illusion of occupation, of presence.
But tonight, the emptiness felt right, and he switched the lamp off, let the darkness fill the apartment, and walked slowly, one hand holding the wine glass, the other trailing along the wall for guidance, to the guest bathroom. The incubus was there. You had to look closely—he was like a heat shimmer, or those little mirages you see on the highway, sky on tar that looks like water—but he was there. James took a sip of wine, held the glass out as an offering, but the incubus just smiled, teeth so white, like frost on a window pane. “No,” James sighed, “I don’t suppose you need wine, do you?” The smile remained, glowing in the near-darkness. “Will you come out? They’re gone.” James walked from the bathroom to the guest room and sat on the bed. The incubus moved to the door of the bathroom, hovered on the threshold. He could feel so solid when he wanted to, thought James, but now he was thin, filmy like a soap bubble. “Come in here,” James said gently.
He didn’t really understand the incubus: why he was here, what he wanted, whether there were rules he had to follow, like a genie from a bottle with three wishes to grant and all sorts of strings attached. He’d come upon him by chance, it seemed; driven one night from the master bedroom by a noisy upstairs neighbor, James had fallen asleep in the guest room and woken to a man lying on top of him, holding his face with icy hands, kisses moving like fire down his throat. It was suffocating and exhilarating and at the moment when James felt like the man was going to crush him, he had disappeared, faded away. In the morning, he thought it might have been a dream, except that his ribs were sore, and he felt full, like a pillow that someone has plumped up. Something had happened to him.
On his way to work—he was in human resources at a big pharmaceutical company in Cambridge—he stopped at a bookstore in Harvard Square and made his way somewhat tentatively down the New Age/Occult aisle. (Dennis had started here, too, James recalled, looking for books on healing and transcendental meditation. It could be a slippery slope.) He paged through a few dream dictionaries, though he was fairly certain that this hadn’t been a dream and even more certain that, if it had been, he knew damn well how to interpret it. But in a guide to the supernatural, he found what he was looking for: “Night Visitors,” the chapter was called, an explanation of the forces that brought nightmares, nocturnal arousal, and certain prognosticatory dreams. There it was: the incubus was a male demon—that didn’t seem right, he hadn’t felt evil, James thought—who had sexual intercourse with unsuspecting sleepers. Marked by cold limbs, the sensation of overbearing weight, unparalleled arousal. The article went on about pregnancies and incubi tending to prefer virgins, but James stopped reading. A demon. He wasn’t sure he believed in such things. But the man last night had seemed so real—more than a ghost—James could still feel his hands on his face, the frigid weight of him.
He shut the book, shoved it back onto the shelf with a sense of resolution. That settled it; there was an incubus in his apartment. On some level, James knew he should feel some sort of violation, defilement, that his space had been intruded upon. Instead, he stood in the aisle, surrounded by the occult, the pagan transposed to this modern age, filled with delight. Had the incubus been there the whole time, ever since he moved in with Dennis, just lurking? No, James thought as he slipped from the bookstore, diving back into the stream of commuters, the incubus had come for him; it had felt his loneliness, known his need. His face tingled where he’d been touched.
When he got home and saw the picture of him and Dennis on the mantel, smiling in sunglasses on a beach some time impossibly distant, James felt a spasm of guilt. He’d spent all day thinking about the incubus, and it crossed his mind that he was being unfaithful, so for days after that, he avoided the guest room. But, aching with loneliness and desire, he decided to spend another night there and, waking up having to take a piss, found the incubus waiting for him in the bathroom. Cold fingers lifted his shirt, loosened the drawstrings of his pajama pants. The shocking frigidity of his mouth, a place James had always thought of as warm. Since then, James had taken to sleeping every night in the guest room, crawling under the covers and hoping that the icy hands would wake him. They did so often that James had come to take the presence of the incubus as a near-constant; he’d all but forgotten the purported demonic nature, the supernatural state of the encounter, and had come to think of it as part of his life.
Now, the incubus took a few steps towards the bed, his body translucent, naked but indistinct, a mere outline, a suggestion, the root of desire. James leaned back against the pillows, putting his wine on the bedside table. The incubus’ smile had widened into an insouciant grin. James unbuttoned his shirt, unzipped his pants, felt the air around him grow chill as the incubus moved into it. That smile moving closer to him, onto him. Amazing that cold could be incandescent. In the dark, in the aftermath of utter satisfaction (like a cat that has lapped a bowl of cream), James struggled to stay awake, wishing he could keep the incubus from fading away into the darkness. “Tell me your name,” he said sleepily. Standing again at the edge of the bed, the incubus shook his head—no name, or he won’t tell me, James wondered—and then disappeared, leaving him alone again.
In the morning, the apartment crawling with light and shadow, James made coffee, awash in a wave of fresh guilt. Had he been unfaithful to Dennis? Was it possible to cheat with an incubus? Was it possible to be in a relationship with a celibate monk? He dressed with his back to the mirror, then picked up the phone, dialed the number of the monastery. The voice on the other end told him, as he’d been told before, that novitiates couldn’t take phone calls and would be given messages only in an emergency. James held the phone against his cheek, felt his own warm breath on his face, decided it wasn’t it emergency, and hung up.
After that night, the incubus didn’t appear for days. James waited in the bathroom, took long soaks in the tub, slept in the guest room. Nothing. At home, at work, his thoughts flew around like ducks after a shotgun blast. Searching for what could have driven the incubus away. Then it came to him: the name. He’d asked and the incubus had said no, or nothing. He had to find the name. It was a rite. He knew this in the same way he knew it was an incubus he was dealing with, instinctively, delightfully, like finding a hidden passageway in a house you’ve lived in for years. He bought a book of baby names for boys and perched, a glass of wine in one hand, on the toilet lid in the guest bathroom; he’d read one name, wait in the darkness, then read another. He only skipped over Dennis. The incubus couldn’t be named that. There wasn’t any reply, just his own voice, the vague drip of some faulty pipe. Some nights he cried, most nights he quit after fifteen minutes.
He’d just started reading the N names, was sitting in the darkened bathroom, just a candle flickering by the sink (he thought that would create the proper atmosphere) when the phone rang one night. It was Greg. “Where have you been hiding? We’ve missed you!”
James tried to push back his annoyance at being interrupted. “I’ve been busy. Lots of work.”
“Let’s do dinner sometime soon. Tomorrow?”
“I can’t.” Nothing seemed important to him, nothing seemed alive to him. Listening to Greg’s voice on the phone, he couldn’t even picture his friend’s face. It was as though everything in the world was fading away. Just him, sitting in the dark. “Maybe some other time.”
James returned to the bathroom, took a sip of wine, and perched on the lid of the toilet. For a moment, he thought about what this would look like to Greg or Anthony, how crazy they’d think he was. His laugh echoed off the tile, sounding harsh and unnatural. It was the truth; he’d passed into some different realm, entered another world, leaving everyone else behind. Why was it that all his friends had been so accepting of Dennis and his Buddhism, hanging up prayer flags on their porches, gamely trying vegetarian meals, doffing their shoes when they came in the apartment, but they thought James crazy when he mentioned an incubus? Why believe that Dennis was noble when he became a monk, but James was lonely and nuts when he fell in love with a ghost?
A few days later, James had almost given up; he’d worked alphabetically all the way to W, and then he said “Walter.” And he appeared—was it his imagination or was he more solid? He just appeared, standing in front of the sink, flickering in and out like the candle flame. James didn’t want him to be named Walter; he wanted a sexier name, but he thought he could learn to live with it.
“Walter,” he said, the next morning, but only to himself. He’d slept in the guest room, the sheets were a tangle. It was late; he felt deliciously lazy, plagued only by a vague sense of guilt, as if last night he’d broken a diet he’d been on, gorged himself with French fries and banana splits—a good kind of guilt, one that left him replete, contented. Sex, he decided, didn’t count if it was with an incubus.
James finally showered, slowly worked his way through the Saturday crossword puzzle, before shopping at Whole Foods. Canvas bags under his arm, he strolled through the Cambridge neighborhood towards River Street. He felt preternaturally alert in the winter air, as if he’d been asleep for weeks and just now come awake, totally refreshed. He registered the bare limbs on the trees, the bicycles chained to lamp-posts. He delighted in the heterogeneity of the lawns here: this porch flying a pride flag, this garden sporting a bathtub saint or a Mary on the half shell. This is life, the world seemed to be saying to him, love it.
Shopping at Whole Foods, even before Dennis’ Buddhist days, had often been the social highlight of the week, always running into colleagues and friends. Sure enough, when he was examining the eggplant, Greg spotted him and rolled his cart over.
“Hey, James, glad I found you! Want to do dinner tonight?” Greg’s cheeks were flushed, a sort of ruddiness that heralded health and vigor. His brown hair curled politely off his forehead, dark eyes beneath radiating interest.
James put down the eggplant. He’d been envisioning a quiet dinner and evening at home with Walter. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Thanks, but there’s a lot to do at home right now.”
“How about a drink before dinner? We can meet in the square?”
James heard the earnest concern in Greg’s voice, a reminder of some world he used to inhabit. He looked at his friend, in weekend dishabille of flannel shirt and corduroys. Warm, comfy, inviting. “Okay,” he said.
That afternoon, the apartment felt hauntingly empty, sunlight picking out all the spots where Dennis used to sit, the low table with the bell he used for chanting. For the first few weeks that Dennis had been at the monastery, James had reveled in the emptiness. He’d slept in the middle of the bed, rearranged the living room furniture, and played some of his old CDs. But the newness and fascination had worn off into loneliness and silence, a simmering frustration, often directed as much at himself as at Dennis. Why couldn’t he be happy on his own? Why did he need someone else to fulfill him? After putting the groceries away, he looked briefly into the guest room. But Walter was never there during the day. The curtains were pulled over the windows, the room cave-like in the unnatural darkness. But even as dark as he could make it, he knew Walter had slipped away until true night. “Where do you go?” James wondered aloud. There must be some other world, James thought, some other place, some perpetual night. It must be close by, brushing up against this world, so that Walter could easily slip between the two. He thought he knew how that felt, that sense of not really being there, of not really belonging.
When James entered the bar that evening, it was already crowded. He found a table with Greg and Anthony along the side wall, the kind with high chairs, too tall for you to sit properly and have your feet touch the floor. James sat with his wine glass in front of him, feet perched awkwardly on a rung, feeling like a caged parrot.
They talked work and television shows, then about a mutual friend’s imminent break up. Just as James was wondering what they might say about him and Dennis when he wasn’t there, Greg put his drink down and asked, “So—have you heard from Dennis?”
James gave what he hoped was a look of indifferent satisfaction, if such a look were possible, a communication that everything was fine, he didn’t care, let’s change the subject. Briefly, he reminded them of the vow of silence, even though he was pretty sure that he’d explained all this to Greg and Anthony before, that they were leading him on, trying to steer the conversation into deep relationship talk.
“No offense,” said Anthony, “But this must make your relationship really tough.”
James saw Greg wriggle uncomfortably, thought he might be kicking his boyfriend under the table. He shrugged.
“Real love is about more than the body.” There was an unintentional hollowness in these words. He wasn’t sure he’d ever believed these things, but still found himself hoping that, by repeating them, belief might be instilled.
“But don’t you get lonely?” Greg asked.
James thought about the afternoon light in his apartment. He was suddenly tired, tired of these friends, this conversation, tired of having to explain the rationality of a decision that wasn’t his, that wasn’t rational.
“We’re just concerned about you,” said Anthony. “I mean, the last time we saw you, you were talking about some incubus in your bathroom.”
There was no mistaking it this time. Greg definitely kicked Anthony under the table, but it was too late. James felt the blood drain from his face. “Just leave him out of it.”
Greg put a hand on Anthony’s shoulder, but Anthony brushed it off. “Come on, James, admit it. It sounds a little crazy.”
“He’s what keeps me from being crazy.” James stood up, knocking over his chair. He turned and left. If they called out after him, he didn’t hear.
The next evening, when James heard the key turning in the lock, he was changing the sheets on the guest bed. The room smelled of fabric softener and a faint scent—watery and scarce—that he associated with Walter, even though it didn’t seem possible for an incubus to have a scent. But every night Walter seemed more real, his body more solid, and James was convinced that if he was patient, Walter might speak, might linger into the daylight, might become a real part of his life. Just this morning when he’d woken before dawn, Walter still lay next to him, his form making a slight dent on the mattress, like a real body, his arm almost warm, resting on James’s hip. And when he’d seen James awake, he had smiled and risen, walked to the bathroom and disappeared.
James had gone to work, come home, done the laundry, had dinner, and now was making the bed, counting the hours until full night and Walter would appear. But then the key in the lock, the rattle of the front door, Dennis’ voice calling from the kitchen. “Hello? James?”
The apartment constricted around him, as if the walls had stepped inward, pressing up against him. “Dennis?” he said, but quietly, to himself.
James stepped out into the living room, pillow case still in hand. Dennis stood in the kitchen, poised uneasily, like an intruder, a stranger, even though this was his house. “Well, hi, James.” His brows knitted as James remained silent. It looked as though he wanted to reach out, touch James—one arm kept bending and lifting, only to fall back, unable to cross the distance between them.
“Why are you here?”
Dennis looked at him, a gaze of almost paternal concern and confusion. “I guess we have a lot to talk about.”
James didn’t respond, just looked at this phantom, grown skinny from seven months on a mountaintop, pale scalp showing through the barest of stubble, his eyes already assuming the inward look of a visionary, the patient coldness of a man withdrawn from the world, this ghost who should not be here.
“It’s late,” said Dennis, “The bus ride was long. I left as soon as they told me that Greg had called, that you were unstable. Maybe we should wait until morning to really talk.”
Unstable. James nodded, bit back the question that had been on his lips—why are you here?—he knew now, Greg and Anthony had phoned the monastery, had told them it was an emergency, had broken through that vow of silence, brought the monk down from the mountain. Dennis glanced at the pillowcase in his hand, peered past him to the guest room, where the freshly made bed was evident. “Thanks for setting that up for me. I think it would be best if I slept in there.”
James wanted to protest, but the words stuck in his throat, as if it were he who had taken the vow of silence. Dennis moved past him, flicked on the overhead light in the guest room, dropped his knapsack on the bed, and stepped into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. James heard the hiss of the shower as he shrugged the pillow into its case, set it on the bed. The clock on the nightstand showed nine thirty. Right now, this room should be dusky and silent, shadows filling the corners. James should be waiting in the dark for his lover to appear.
Alex Myers was born and raised in western Maine. Since high school, Alex has campaigned for transgender rights. As a female-to-male transgender person, Alex began his transition at Phillips Exeter Academy (returning his senior year as a man after attending for three years as a woman) and was the first transgender student in that academy’s history. Alex was also the first openly transgender student at Harvard, and worked to change the university’s nondiscrimination clause to include gender identity. After earning a master’s in religion from Brown University, Alex began a career as a high school English teacher. His first novel, Revolutionary, was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Along the way, he earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He currently lives in DC with his wife and two cats.
Photo credit: LivLuv